The Road Not Taken

added 5/5/2015 by Pat Hajovsky

As the Astros incredible 2015 early season has been unfolding (currently sitting at 18-8), national sportswriters have started taking notice. This happens when a team reels off a 10-game winning streak, especially a team that has been historically bad over the last five years. Add in the fact that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow has adopted a mathcentric, computer geek nerd approach to it all and you have the makings of a story that writes itself - pure gold for sportswriters.

When casting about for something to say, sportswriters inevitably focus on trades. It's easy to speculate on it. You can quote unnamed "experts" (read: other sportswriters or GMs/Managers currently stoking favor to get back into the game) and say, "The Astros simply don't have x, y or z, but if they'd only listen to this advice, they'll be champs!"

Last year, the A's picked up Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija, following the advice of many to bolster the pitching staff, and writers and commentators were almost in epileptic fits over how they might as well not even play the World Series after that. We all see how well that worked out for Oakland.

So, do the Astros need to make a deal to contend for a title? It's easy to look at the pitching staff as constructed (and currently mostly injury-free) and see that beyond Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, the starters are thin. But are they? Let's look a little closer.

Scott Feldman is coming off back-to-back 180 innings pitched seasons (181.2 in 2013 and 180.1 in 2014) with an average of just over six innings per start. His ERA was 3.86 in 2013, and was projected to be higher in 2014 given his BABIP and the lack of an efficient defense in Houston. Those predictions were wrong, and he ended up with a 3.74 ERA, and a more than respectable 1.303 WHIP. In brief, Feldman is a known quantity and a more than respectable number three starter.

Roberto "Fausto Carmona" Hernandez was signed as a back end of the rotation guy, and he is so far ably filling that role. In his age 34 season, he has been serviceable. He owns a 4.25 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 18/9 K/BB ratio over 29.2 innings. The ERA is slightly high, but the WHIP (a better number in any event) is slightly lower. In short, this is the dictionary picture of a number four in the rotation starter.

The number five spot has been a roller coaster. Asher Wojciechowski, a rookie, was less than stellar, to say the least. Sam Deduno stepped up on May 1st against the Mariners and delivered four workman-like innings in what amounted to his tandem start, and he's scheduled to do the same on May 6th. Brett Oberholtzer is coming back from a bad blister, and could not complete three innings while giving up seven hits and seven earned runs in his first rehab start.

Clearly, the number five starter issue is unresolved, and an inviting target to fill via trade. On the other hand, find me a team that does not have fifth starter issues and I will give you a prize. A fifth starter is, by definition, a mediocre player that you get the most of you can. In the playoffs, they become long relievers, assuming they make the playoff roster at all. Given off days, a fifth starter makes roughly 15% of a team's starts, which is important but hardly critical and not enough to give up a prized prospect.

Now, let's look a little closer at the batting lineup. The keys to picking up players like Evan Gattis, Jed Lowrie and Colby Rasmus this off-season were (1) provide insurance in case Jon Singleton, Robbie Grossman, Jake Marisnick and Chris Carter do not produce and (2) provide protection to those hitters in a lineup that includes run scorers Jose Altuve, Lowrie and George Springer. This has worked just about perfectly, as Grossman and Carter have had what could be called tepid starts at best.

So what's your decision tree if the deal is to bring in a starting pitcher? As with all trades, you ask yourself if the return equals or exceeds what you are giving up But the context there is key. If you have a chance to win it all this year, you should be willing to give up a little future since winning it all is the only goal. The problem, of course, is nothing is guaranteed. So you take the best shot you have without mortgaging future shots unreasonably. That is a recipe for uncertainty in decision-making.

Let's say you send out Domingo Santana in a deal for Philadelphia pitcher Cole Hamels. Hamels is a known commodity, someone who could definitely slot right in between McHugh and Feldman and produce a strong three-man playoff rotation with Feldman as the fourth. But consider Santana is 22 years old. He strikes out at a prodigious rate, but he is only 22 years old. His OPS this year so far at AAA is 1.026! He has had two multi-homer games and, oh look, he's 22 years old!

Grossman has been the right-handed alternative for Colby Rasmus in the lineup, but even he is finding those opportunities limited. Rasmus is a streak hitter, and if there's no answer for him when he gets cold, Santana would fit in nicely should Grossman continue to struggle. That option is gone if Santana is gone.

Okay, so how about Preston Tucker? Tucker is 24 years old, plays left field and can play first, and currently has an OPS of .999 with nine HRs on the year at Fresno. A 7th-round draft pick steal, he had a long look in the spring and the Astros are very high on his power left-handed bat. Chris Carter is hitting .150 at the moment, and has enough sample size where you can pretty much slot him in as a sub-.250 major league hitter with some power. Isn't Preston Tucker a better future option than that and in the short term? But, hey, he could bring us Cole Hamels. Tough one.

Now let's add Jon Singleton to the analysis. Signed to a major league contract, Singleton is dealable because his contract is secure. Completely outmatched in his Astros debut in 2014, Singleton hit .168 with an OPS of a measly .620 to go along with 134 K's in 366 plate appearances.

This season, he underperformed in spring training, and is now hitting .222 in Fresno, the result of a 2-for-22 slump, albeit with a respectable OPS of .807. In fact, Singletons entire Minor League career shows a relatively mediocre .276 average with an .852 OPS and 79 home runs in over 2300 plate appearances. On his own, you tell me if he's enough to pry away Hamels or Kyle Lohse, without even mentioning the drug suspension.

My point is not to argue against making a trade, or for making a trade. But fans should keep in mind that a baseball team is the result of many moving parts mixed with ESP and expected knowledge of the future. One deal will not win a championship, but a hasty deal will cost one championship, and perhaps more.

As Robert Frost wrote in The Road Not Taken:
"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference."

Or, as Yogi Berra said, "When you come to the fork in the road, take it."